Counterterrorism is no substitute for community building

In the UK and elsewhere in the West, the debate about cultural integration of Muslims has become hopelessly entangled with the debate about security. This has not improved understanding of either issue.

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The year 2011 will probably go down in the history of counterterrorism strategy as a watershed. In January, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fell not due to an Islamist terrorist overthrow, but to a popular, non-violent revolution. The same goes for Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who exited the political scene in February.

These revolutions were for dignity and the result of popular uprisings, not for a restored caliphate or for any of Al Qaeda's aims and purposes.

Nonetheless, Al Qaeda and its cohorts had hoped to exploit the situation at a later stage. They still might, although the death of their leader Osama bin Laden at the hands of American special forces has clearly thrown the organisation into disarray.

Why does all of this matter? Because not only do we operate in a post-September 11 and 7/7 world - yesterday marking six years since homegrown Muslim terrorists attacked London's public transportation system - we are also living in a post-Arab Spring reality.

And in this regard, strategies for countering terrorism and engaging with publics must adapt accordingly.

Western governments have realised that they will have to engage with Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood within western societies, upending long-held beliefs that such groups were little more than gateways to terrorism.

Doing so will require overturning numerous conventions. While the British security services had warned about a domestic terrorist threat prior to that day in July 2005, few within the intelligence community took the threat particularly seriously. All that has since changed, and yet intelligence officials are still asking basic questions.

What is happening in our communities that could have transformed these young men into terrorists? And can we find ways to engage with Muslim communities to combat the forces that produced the 7/7 bombers?

Domestically, the UK government has allowed for the debate around integration and multiculturalism to become intertwined with that of security - so that issues pertaining to social cohesion become invariably related to terrorism. As a result of that, government funding for a whole slew of projects has been cut.

Some of this is likely to be positive; many initiatives were simply being funded by the wrong government sector. For example, initiatives involved in community capacity building should never have been funded from counterterrorism funds.

These two very different agendas should have remained separate. Their conflation has resulted in a deeply suspicious attitude among Muslim communities of the UK, the rest of Europe and the West in general.

At the same time, however, there is also a great deal of negativity about security initiatives in many western countries. The confusion between social cohesion discussions and security is ingrained in public discourse, creating a new wave of anti-Muslim sentiment.

One need look no further than the banning of new minarets in Switzerland, or the angry rhetoric of politicians like the Dutch conservative Geert Wilders, to see the results of these failed policies.

We also find that some British politicians prefer to overrule security specialists and practitioners by declaring that the state should never engage with ultraconservative - even if nonviolent - Islamist trends.

Governments have to draw the line when people actually break the law. Within those parameters, however, there must be engagement. If ultra-conservative Salafis have proven abilities to draw people away from Al Qaeda, for example, then efforts should be made to cooperate with them.

At present, however, the opposite is happening. In fact, lines are being drawn to classify other groups as "extreme", shunning engagement at official levels simply because these groups believe in following Sharia and might have objections to Britain's foreign policies.

If the UK - or any nation looking to engage Muslim communities, for that matter - defines "extreme" in this fashion, then it is condemning itself to a perpetual conflict with an overwhelming majority of Muslims.

Counterterrorist strategies are by nature a process of continual evaluation. And that process should continue. It will have to be done carefully and in conjunction with all involved, who have to perceive themselves as stakeholders rather than targets.

Then, and only then, will groups historically on the margins of society believe they are partners in the ongoing struggle against terrorism, working together to avert a repeat of July 7, 2005.

Dr HA Hellyer is a Fellow at the University of Warwick (UK) and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He writes at